The Life, Thought, and Influence of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
1-4 June 2002
Allerton Park Conference Center, Monticello, Illinois, USA.
Invited by Dr. Helmut von Moltke, president of the Rosenstock Foundation, I took part in early June in the meeting in Monticello, IL. Some of the presented communications will soon be translated and published on this site. I did not have time yet to write down a report of my meetings and conversations with the top thinkers, relatives, friends and disciples of Rosenstock-Huessy that I met there. I’ll just say two things: first, that I found there in four days more creative intellectual activity than in Brazil in the last thirty years. I say that without exaggeration. The abyss which was dug between this country and the rest of the world in terms of intelligence is immeasurable. Our dive into provincialism was too deep. Maybe we will never be able to come to the surface again. We owe such a state of affairs fundamentally to the empire of Marxism in the universities. Far from retreating after the fall of URSS, this empire spread beyond the academic circles and today rules the whole of the media, children’s education, middle class mentality, everything. In its stubborn attachment to lies a thousand times demoralized, our educated class committed intellectual suicide. National intelligence is dead and will not resurrect. At least, not in this generation.
The second thing I noticed among the participants of the meeting was that the author of The Origin of Language left in them something more than the traits of a mere intellectual influence. He left a style of being, of thinking, of speaking, marked by a simplicity, a sincerity and a goodness that contrast with everything that may be found in any other environment of the academic universe. Each man and woman with whom I talked in these four days seemed to be someone I had already known for ages, a relative or old friend. There were people from everywhere – Switzerland, England, Germany and even Russia and China. If this atmosphere were to prevail among intellectuals, a great part of the pedantic charlatanism that floats around the world would not exist.
I am grateful for the help of Sue Medeiros and Bruno Tolentino, who corrected the mistakes of my terrible English writing.
Olavo de Carvalho
This conference was organized with the objective of discussing projects for the translation of Rosenstock’s work into several languages. In the case of my own personal project, it is not a project anymore, but a reality. Here is the Brazilian edition of Rosenstock-Huessy’s The Origin of Speech. This copy reached my hands from printing just a few days ago. Many other copies are now being distributed to Brazilian bookshops and libraries.
To understand the orientation I took in this translation, we need to examine some details on the general guidelines of this editorial collection, and of the pedagogical use I intend for the translation. Also, we need to understand the Brazilian cultural scenario into which this book will make an entrance.
In the first place, this translation is not my work only, but a collective work done by my philosophy students in City University Center of Rio de Janeiro (Centro Universitário da Cidade), the institution where I teach. This translation served to give my students the first feel of Rosenstock’s work, and also as an occasion to make them aware of the current state of the Portuguese language, seen in the light of his teaching; in such a light we could measure the accuracy of Rosenstock’s observations on the intimate relationship between grammar and society.
It was not only a pedagogical activity, but also an effort of truly investigative work, for there is still in Brazilian society very little discussion on the transformations suffered by our language in the last decades, and of the social crisis these transformations express. I can say this coordinated activity with my students was the first serious attempt to examine this question in Brazilian academe, and this attempt would have been impossible without the help from Rosenstock’s ideas.
Created as the result of a court revolution in the XIVth century, Portugal was the first nation-state in Europe, while the Portuguese language was the last Roman language to emerge in History. It seems the result from this strange combination of the first with the last was such that, when Portuguese finally reached the state of a stabilized literary language with the great classics of the 16th and 17th centuries, the new language was closer to Latin than any other European language of the time, and it remained so until the 20th. century.
We can say that the only substantial difference separating it from Latin is the supression of Latin declensions, efficiently substituted by a rich stock of prepositions. The most startling similarity is that the rich system of Latin verbal tenses remained practically the same in modern Portuguese, while it suffered drastic suppressions and modifications in other Roman languages. For instance, Latin’s more-than-perfect tense, which signifies a remote past as viewed from a more recent past, is designated in French by the composed form: “Il avait aimé”, English’s past perfect, he had loved. In Portuguese, the contracted form of the Latin more-than-perfect tense remained intact, while at the same time the composed form – which is equally Latin in spirit – was also adopted, so Portuguese-speaking people from Portugal, Brazil and Africa have at their disposal two forms of the more-than-perfect, two ways of viewing the remote past from the standpoint of a more recent past. The contracted form (“amara”, “louvara”, he had loved, he had praised) is used in a pure narrative and casual way, while the composed one – tinha amado, tinha louvado –, inasmuch as it breaks the unity of the idea between the pure meaning of the main verb and the temporal reference given by the auxiliary one “ter” (to have), serves explicitly to stress the anteriority of the time one is refering to. A more precise idea of what this means in the practical use can be obtained by the following difference: a novelist or a journalist that simply reports the previous background of an event can at ease make use of the contracted form – “Ele fizera isto ou aquilo”, he had done so and so – while an attorney at bar, who needs to stress the precise temporal sequence in order to obtain criminal proof will surely choose the composed time: “Ele tinha feito isto ou aquilo”, he had already done so and so.
So fine a distinction (as many others of similar importance) can be found not only in the indicative mode but also in the subjunctive one.
The richness of the verbal system that Portuguese brought forth and developed from Latin allowed for the construct of very extensive sentences gathering together simultaneously several temporal dimensions, and a great variety of logical relationships, harmonically. – without loss of either unity nor clarity.
Rosenstock-Huessy says that the great pedagogical virtue of Latin is that every sentence exhibits in a transparent way all the fabric of social relationships existing in the context of speaker and audience. Much of this transparency was maintained in Portuguese, and that permited the development of two social phenomena of great importance: first, Portuguese is the only language in which an almost literal translation of scholastic authors, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scott, sounds very natural and requires little adaptation. Due to this, the fine terminology of scholastic thought could be absorbed and integrated in a more modern philosophical language, in the work of the greatest Brazilian philosopher, Mário Ferreira dos Santos, opening to the Portuguese language the perspective of becoming a wonderfully proper language for philosophy. Second, the juridical tradition of Portuguese comes directly from Roman Law, and thanks to these properties of our language it kept great precision, together with nuances that took form in two outstanding pieces of Brazilian Law: the Brazilian Civil Code of Francisco Campos and the Philosophy of Law by Miguel Reale.
Thus, at first it would seem that a translation of Rosenstock into Portuguese was to find the best possible conditions to illustrate – through gramatical relationships – the structure of human society. However, what we found was precisely the opposite, for in Brazil the Portuguese language, in the last five decades, suffered a process of deterioriation and decomposition comparable only to the one Karl Kraus, Eric Voegelin and Rosenstock himself saw taking place in the German language during the thirties. The difference being that the richness and the efficacy of the German language could be maintained by German authors in exile, while the losses suffered by Portuguese language in Brazil, if not altogether irreparable, will take many decades to be corrected.
To begin with, two verbal persons simply disappeared from use, first in popular intercourse, then in literary usage, and finally in grammar compendiums. Those gramatical persons are – or were – precisely the ones Rosenstock would consider essential to the clarifying of social relations, and the very forming of human consciousness itself. They are the second persons, singular and plural – tu and vós – corresponding to the English you. They were substituted by verbal compromises using the third person, derived from old respectful forms of treatment having lost all respectful content in modern usage.
Now, how is it possible to speak with a person without saying you? How to distinguish the property of one or the other, if we only have the possessive pronouns of the third person? The difficulties in the construction of certain sentences of modern Portuguese are astounding, what makes the learning of the language so hard a task that even the literate classes would tend to write and speak in an obscure and incorrect way. Please note I am speaking but of one of the many losses Brazilian Portuguese suffered in the last fifty years. I am not aware of a similar occurrence in any other language in the world, being at a loss to imagine any other language losing two verbal persons in so short a time. But thanks to this and other phenomena of similar kind, the distance between spoken and written language in Brazil deepened to such an extent that the former became exceedingly confused and obscure, while the second often manages to sound artificial to the risk of being ridiculously pompous. Such situation scarcely makes it easy the circulation of ideas, for on the one hand people close themselves in simplified slogans that do not demand thought, while intellectuals get trapped in an empty and excessively intricate speech presumaby designed to give themselves an impression of thinking. During the last decades, intellectual decadence in Brazil has been so deep and extensive that gathering documents about that process in the several fields of mental activity – I was led to compose two volumes of a work called significantly “The Collective Imbecile”, and have since gathered material for three more volumes. The state of gradual loss of intellectual consciousness among Brazilian literate classes is so serious that if I was to fully describe it here to you, I might be justly accused of making negative propaganda of my country abroad.
My own written work – twelve volumes up to now – is but a hugely exhausting effort to restore the nobility and communicability of the language, using on the one hand the constructions inherited from the classics, and on the other hand the popular arrangements that – born from the decomposition of the language – could be used in some way as a sort of vaccine against it.
In my classes I have the habit of explaining to my students the state of the language and my reasons for writing as I do. The work on the translation of Rosenstock is part of this effort to make a reflection on both the disease of the language and the possibilities of a cure.
The first time the name of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy was mentioned before a Brazilian audience was in 1946, in a brilliant essay on European Revolutions written by Austrian born Brazilian literary critic Otto Maria Carpeaux. Carpeaux was, like Rosenstock-Huessy himself, a Jew converted to Christianity. Fleeing from the nazi invaders of his native country, he came to Brazil in 1939, mastered Portuguese with astounding speed and in a few years became the dean of Brazilian literary criticism.
He wrote many books and press articles and introduced a whole generation of Brazilian students to many authors they had never heard of. But that generation passed away before it was able to transmit to the next anything but a tiny piece of its rich human and intellectual experience. Carpeaux was forgotten, and so was his essay to make Brazilians read Rosenstock-Huessy. My own generation seemed interested in nothing more than Marxism. This kind of oblivion signals the phenomenon that Rosenstock-Huessy himself calls decadence: the older generation fails to transmit to the new one a set of values and a meaning of life. Decadence entails revolution.
Americans and other foreigners do not seem at all aware a revolution is taking place in Brazil. Many, misinformed by the media, believe that what is going on in Brazil is a simple democratic battle against corruption and poverty. But the campaigns against corruption never lessened corruption, having rather increased it, for they were simply used by the political left to destroy their adversaries, and not for a moral cleansing of the country. The fight against poverty is also more of a legitimizing slogan than a reality, for in no other country or epoch were so many people so rapidly removed from poverty by the mere spontaneous progress of economy. For instance, in the sixties more than fifty percent of our children had no schools. Today this number fell to two percent. People under the poverty line – a number that three decades ago reached forty percent of the population – today are but eight percent. So much progress and prosperity do not justify a general revolt against social dereliction. And yet, this revolt is much greater today than three decades ago. If it was not created by the increase in poverty, one can only find its roots in cultural and psychological causes. But then we might ask a Rosenstockian question: if the language is in decomposition to the point that even the word you disapears from it, can we not also expect that the whole society has great difficulty in becoming conscious of its own state and lives therefore in a state of hallucination and self-deceit, to the point of no longer being able to name its own evils?
What is taking place in Brazil is a crisis of/in articulation. Wherever one looks, informal, inarticulate language proliferates in a hallucinating flowering of word plays of very short duration, untranslatable dialects that very soon are forgotten and are not understood by anyone. On the other hand, formal and articulate language holds on to repetitive schema and stereotypes that move further and further away from the possiblity of expressing reality. From this comes the general complaint againt hunger, precisely in the moment when poverty is fast receding. “Miséria” became only the conventional name of a diffuse evil whose nature no one can express. That is why, actually, the country’s region where there is the greatest rebellion and revolutionary spirit, especially in the rural areas, is the one with the most prosperous agriculture, and less incidence of poverty. Foreigners sometimes cannot imagine how cheap food is in Brazil. When I remember that one of the promises of Roosevelt’s New Deal was to ensure that every American family had the guarantee to eat a chicken a week, and notice on the other hand that in Brazil even the poorest family can eat a chicken a day, I know exactly why this sounds untruthful abroad, for everyone hears about the social agitation in Brazil, and hear the Brazilian intellectuals themselves say that it is caused by desperate poverty. People hear about, for instance, the rising criminality rates, and associate it with extreme poverty, for that is the easiest association to make, but the fact is that there is no criminality in the poorest regions of the country, and on the places where, on the contrary, criminality peaked, the quality of living of the population has increased significantly in the past decades. People hear, for example, of the slums. But the word that designates them in Portuguese, favelas, means a house made of cardboard, because in the past freed slaves having found refuge there lived in houses made of cardboard. In these regions simply there are no more houses made of cardboard. There are houses made of brick and mortar, often with a satellite dish on top. The prosperity of the small construction industry inside the favelas was so great that a friend of mine – civil engineer and constructor –, a Brazilian of Canadian origin called Donald Stewart Jr., made a study suggesting that the model of real estate negotiations on the favelas served as a model for the rest of the country. And it was precisely in the middle of this prosperity boom in the favelas that the development of criminality and drug-dealing activities found their customers and market share. Regardless of that, the association between poverty and criminality seems to have taken over the minds and hearts of Brazilians to the point they do not see the peculiar characteristics of what is happening. People who cannot speak cannot think. The whole situation is a great hallucination, and I do not see another way to try to understand it and remedy it except through the Rosenstockian science of language.
Rosenstock saw his philosophy of language not only as a theory, but as a remedy for the suffering of society. More than ever, Brazilians need to learn how to speak, so they can tell each other what they are really going through in the experience of life. This dialogue is not the easiest task at the moment. All one hears are angered insults on the one hand, and abstract formalities on the other. When we thought of translating Rosenstock, our hope was that this helped us to heal our own speech, and that, once healed, we could maybe spread around a little health.
It would have been very dificult to express the fine print of Rosenstock’s considerations on the diseases of speech in a language that is very ill itself. To translate The Origin of Speech, we had once too often to do violence to modern Portuguese usage in Brazil, including the reintroduction of the two lost verbal persons, in such a way that the translation work in itself became an exercise on the therapy of language, and therefore the reconquering of consciousness. Every individual that took part in this work was transformed and stengthened by it. I have the impression that the same, in a smaller scale, will happen to the readers. For instance, in the universities where there reigns a strict strucuturalist and Saussurean dogmatism, or else a Marxist one, certain affirmations made by Rosenstock, in themselves obvious and undeniable, will have the effect of an electric shock on a catatonic patient. The affirmation, for instance, of the anteriority of formal and solemn language over the informality of everyday urban language will suddenly show to many that they have been studying linguistics with the wrong material. In Brazil there is a dogmatic belief that grammar is an instrument of domination invented by the rich classes to oppress the poor, and owing to that each new decomposition of language is celebrated as a huge progress, no one realizing that this phenomenon corresponds to a loss of the expressive ability and the widening of the abyss between the classes, which makes it even more difficult for people of poorer origin to have access to the creations of higher culture. Rosenstock’s book will help to build a bridge between those on the lower and those on the upper end of society.
One other aspect of this translation relates to the general editorial collection it is inserted into. Each book in this collection was chosen for the fact they had two characteristics. Firstly, it had to be a truly precious and rare piece of work. It is a collection on hidden treasures. Secondly, it had to be a piece of work that helped to rescue and salvage the Brazilian spirit. To enlarge the effect of each of these books, I added to each of them footnotes and comments that compared them to the other works in the collection, creating thus a dialogue between philosophers that, on most cases, never met. In such notes I try to articulate a debate and an understanding among these thinkers, as if they composed the staff of a single university, in which the readers would be the students. I did this because, substantially, the universe of readers of the collection is the same as the students and audience of my courses and conferences. I have a few thousand ex-students spread all over Brazil, that follow with interest and often passion the activities of our circle of studies. It is my hope they would come to form the nucleus of a future Brazilian intellectual elite, in which – I pray – the heritage of the past centuries will be salvaged as a continuous line to help to build the future. Each work in this collection is integrated in this effort to unite different times through language. In my notes Rosenstock dialogues, for example, with the Basque philosopher Xavier Zubiri, the German Eric Voegelin, the Romanian Constantin Noica, and with other authors he never heard of and in which work we always find a wonderful convergence of an incredibly rich and varied human experience.
Our edition of Rosenstock is not, therefore, an isolated editorial product, but an organic component of a vast pedagogical effort directed to a very specific public, a public conscious of itself as having a unity and playing a historical role in the Brazil of the future.
Rosenstock himself never separated his scientific work from his effort in social and pedagogical causes. I believe that in this sense, we have worked in a line to which he would give his approval.
Thank you very much.
Brazilian writer and philosopher, b. 1947, the autor of, among others, Os Gêneros Literários: Seus Fundamentos Metafísicos (“Literary Genres and Their Metaphysical Foundations”, 1996), Aristóteles em Nova Perspectiva (“Aristotle in a New Perspective”, 1997), O Jardim das Aflições: Ensaio sobre o Materialismo e a Religião Civil (“The Garden of Afflitions: An Essay on Materialism and Civil Religion”, 1998), O Futuro do Pensamento Brasileiro (“The Future of Brazilian Thought”, 1998), O Imbecil Coletivo, I e II (“The Collective Imbecile”, I and II). Presently in charge of the Philosophical Seminar at the Centro Universitário da Cidade (City University Center) of Rio de Janeiro. Columnist of the newspapers O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), Jornal da Tarde (São Paulo) and Zero Hora (Porto Alegre) and of the magazine Época (São Paulo).
- Only the pieces of text translated from Portuguese to English were proof read. The text presented in the conference remains as in the original document. This note hasn’t been proof read. – Editor’s Note. Back